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"This place is a ticking bomb," said the dark-skinned, clean shaven man sitting Thursday evening in a barber shop on the corner of Yehuda Hanasi and Nahar Yarden streets, in Beit Shemesh's most virulently ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.
"And it's going to blow up soon."
All the men in the barber shop looked out the window worriedly at what is known by the locals as "the Casbah" - the commercial center of Ramat Beit Shemesh's Kiryat Rama neighborhood.
From the window one could see a burned slope of weeds - the result of fires set by angry haredi demonstrators; a traffic circle strewn with rocks and bricks - remnants of recent stone-throwing incidents and makeshift roadblocks; shops - including a supermarket that provides during peak business hours separate checkout lines for men and women; and angry graffiti stating "cops are dogs" and "no entry for immodestly dressed."
All businesses that cater to the Casbah's residents, including the bank, have notices taped to their doors requesting that female clientele enter only in modest dress. The signs are addressed primarily to residents of surrounding neighborhoods - many of whom are secular - who have to pass through the Casbah to get from one part of Beit Shemesh to another. Occasionally, passers-by stop to shop in one of the stores in the Casbah. But most just keep driving.
In recent months, the Casbah has become the new epicenter of violent clashes between haredim and police.
The latest incident was sparked by the municipality's decision over two weeks ago to remove a large sign warning women to dress modestly. The sign had been up for several years. But Beit Shemesh Mayor Daniel Vaknin decided it was time to enforce municipality restrictions against hanging unauthorized signs. After a municipality car carrying workers who had come to take down the sign was overturned by angry residents who protested the move, Vaknin called for police backup.
On July 2, dozens of young haredi men clashed with policemen, who were wearing helmets and armed. Several haredim were beaten severely. One, Rabbi Daniel Biton, is still hospitalized at Hadassah Ein Kerem with multiple fractures in his right leg. Another, Rabbi Moshe Leib Friedman, said he was repeatedly hit in the head at the Beit Shemesh police station. Another haredi demonstrator's face was reportedly smashed repeatedly into a metal bar.
Six haredim were arrested. One was released Wednesday. The grievances that had their source in the Casbah have metastasized to Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood. On Thursday evening, Satmar hassidim grappled with police outside the sect's synagogue in Jerusalem in protest over the Beit Shemesh arrests. Three Jerusalem residents were arrested.
In the meantime, the sign removed from the Casbah with police help has been replaced by a large sign warning against immodest dress spray-painted in black and red letters. Similar signs, posted spontaneously by residents, dot the balconies of apartments throughout Kiryat Rama.
Ramat Beit Shemesh's Casbah has all the elements of impending disaster. The atmosphere in the streets is heated. Locals say the current struggle is a "holy war" that will determine whether or not haredi Ramat Beit Shemesh will remain faithful to the archetypical model of pristine, exilic Judaism zealously guarded in places like Mea She'arim or Monsey, New York.
The local population consists of a vast array of anti-Zionist hassidic sects. The vast majority are young couples who came to Beit Shemesh to escape the crowding in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim and Beit Yisrael neighborhoods. This has created a strong housing demand in and around the Casbah. An average 90-square-meter apartment costs $150,000, significantly higher than the market price in neighboring areas.
Those who cannot afford apartments are aided by the community, who are enlisted to donate themselves or help raise money in more affluent communities abroad.
All of some dozen haredi residents who spoke to The Jerusalem Post said they felt embattled, threatened and were convinced that the Zionist state was trying to uproot all vestiges of Jewish tradition.
"We have no other explanation for what they are doing to us," said Nachman, a Breslav hassid who preferred not to give his last name.
"The Zionists don't want to destroy religion as a means of establishing their state," said Nachman. "They set up a state as a means of destroying religion."
All residents of the Casbah and the surrounding area refuse to accept state aid or real estate plots allotted by the municipality for synagogues or other community buildings. However, they all said they paid municipality taxes.
Every resident who spoke with the Post blamed the escalation in violence on what they called the "ineptitude" and "evilness" of the Beit Shemesh Police chief Cmdr. Oz Elyasi. They said that Elyasi, who has become an infamous figure in ultra-Orthodox circles, was on a personal crusade against Ramat Beit Shemesh's haredi community.
"Former police chiefs knew how to deal with us," said Natan Bloi, a Beit Shemesh resident. There were very few incidents under [former chief] Meir Barfi... [Former chiefs] had the intelligence to leave us alone, to let us run our own lives."
"But Elyasi is a bully. He has a total lack of sensitivity and a lack of understanding. He does not even talk with the rabbinic leaders," Bloi said.
A few weeks ago, 25 haredim demonstrated outside Elyasi's house. According to Beit Shemesh residents, all 25 were arrested and several were beaten while in prison.
"Oz is a Nazi," is spray-painted on one wall. "Oz is a killer" is spray-painted on another.
Elyasi does not talk to the press. But a police spokeswoman said in response to the haredi charges that Elyasi has been victimized by anonymous telephone callers. So have his mother-in-law and father.
"Callers have issued death threats and Elyasi's nine-year-old daughter suffered from shock as a result of demonstrations outside the Elyasi home," she said.
The spokeswoman also denied claims by haredi residents that Elyasi personally beat demonstrators after they were detained. She rejected claims by haredim that Elyasi's style of policing, unlike that of his predecessors, has exacerbated the tense relationship between the municipality and the haredi community.
"There were always problems in Beit Shemesh," said the spokeswoman. "These incidents are nothing new." However, a shop owner in the Casbah who preferred to remain anonymous said that both Elyasi and the haredim were to blame.
"Retired police who worked with Elyasi told me that the guy lacks communication skills," said the store owner. "He resorts to force instead of negotiating a compromise.
"Meanwhile, the haredim throw rocks and they spill oil in the road to cause cars to slide out of control. I saw them throw tomatoes at a female soldier who walked through the neighborhood in slacks. On another occasion, an Egged bus driver who [had been] stoned got out of his bus, pulled out a pistol and fired warning shots into the air.
"To tell you the truth," he confided, "if I were that bus driver, I wouldn't shoot in the air. I would shoot one of them."